With summer temperatures regularly exceeding 120 degrees Fahrenheit, Death Valley, California, is the hottest place in the United States. The record was recorded in 1913 at 134 degrees. The lowest part of the valley lies 282 feet below sea level, making it also the lowest place in the contiguous US. And yet unbelievably, it is located just 76 miles from the highest point, Mount Whitney. The arid, barren landscape of Death Valley is very strange, very extreme, and very creepy.
Befitting the setting, there are some equally creepy Death Valley urban legends. Ghosts, giants, and lost civilizations have all been reported in this remote locale. Many wayward travelers have died over the years in the unforgiving climate of the aptly-named valley. These scary stories from Death Valley will leave you with chills no matter what the temperature.
In 1849, a group of pioneers taking the Old Spanish Trail from Salt Lake City to California split up around present-day Enterprise, Utah. The main group, led by Captain Jefferson Hunt, continued on the trail, while the rest made an ill-conceived attempt to cut 500 miles off the journey by taking a poorly-documented short cut. They would become known as "The Lost '49ers."
Without a reliable map, this group ended up getting into another dispute around Groom Lake. They split up again, with one group walking through the valley toward the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and the other trying to cross the Panamint Mountains via Warm Springs Canyon. The former group had to abandon their wagons and make jerky out of their oxen. The latter group got bogged down and had to send a few men to get help and supplies. Those men finally returned a month later, and what was left of the group departed. As they turned to leave the area, one person said, "Goodbye, Death Valley," giving the valley the name.
The two groups eventually did make it to California, after much hardship and many deaths. They arrived long after the group that stayed with Captain Hunt.
The Barker Ranch was where Charles Manson planned the Tate-LaBianca murders, and it was the last hideout of the Manson Family before they were arrested on October 12, 1969, though only for the crimes of auto theft and setting a National Park Service tractor on fire. Manson almost escaped arrest by hiding in a bathroom cabinet, but when a police officer returned to use the restroom, he noticed a tuft of hair sticking out of the cabinet door.
In 2009, the ranch burned down, and now ruins are all that remain.
The Paiute Indians who call Death Valley home have a legend about the beautiful underground kingdom of Shin-Au-Av. According to the legend, a great Paiute Chief lost his wife and decided to travel to the world of the dead to find her again. After facing many hardships, he found himself in a large, natural amphitheater and was reunited with his wife, only to lose her again in a story reminiscent of Orpheus and Euridyce.
In modern times, several people have reported discovering a system of caves and catacombs under Death Valley, and some think they could be the remains of an ancient civilization. In the 1920s, a trapper named White claimed to have discovered underground rooms and tunnels after falling through the floor of an abandoned mine. He discovered hundreds of human mummies, all wearing leather clothing, surrounded by treasure. Tom Wilson, a Paiute trapper and guide, heard this story and said his grandfather had made a similar discovery years before. Together, Wilson and White set out to find the caves again, but they were never able to find them a second time.
In 1931, Dr. F. Bruce Russell and Dr. Daniel S. Bovee claim they stumbled upon these mysterious underground caves while trying to sink a mine shaft. Russell and Bovee claimed to find the mummified remains of three giants who were 8 or 9 feet tall, also wearing leather, as well as carvings and artifacts, some of which appeared Egyptian. However, they were never able to find the caves again, and shortly after their discovery, both men disappeared.
According to a prospector named Bourke Lee in his 1932 book Death Valley Men, two men by the names of Jack and Bill also discovered these tunnels after falling through the floor of an old mine shaft. Like the others, they discovered mummies and treasures. However, like every other person who discovered these secrets, they were never able to find the tunnels again, and both disappeared trying.
In July 1996, Egbert Rimkus and his girlfriend Cornelia Meyer drove into Death Valley National Park with his eleven-year-old son Georg and her four-year-old son Max, and all four were never seen again. In October, their van was found with three flat tires on a closed dirt road, sunk up to its axles in sand.
A full 13 years later, what appeared to be the remains of Egbert and Cornelia were found by some hikers in the area. The two boys were never found, and the details of their disappearance remain a mystery.